Registered dietician says consumers should evaluate labels

Frozen pepperoni pizzas, cans of hearty chicken-noodle soup, boxes of chocolate-chunk cookies line the shelves of grocery stores and homes alike.

“Packaged foods are simply convenient,” says Wesley Cook.

The father of two says that when he opts to use packaged foods, it cuts down on cooking and clean-up time.

But he says he worries about all the chemicals, preservatives and additives that go into prepared foods, as he knows it can’t be good for his health or for the health of his family.

“I assume that all packaged foods are a bad option and I only buy them out of laziness,” says Cook.

Registered dietician Lindy Kennedy, owner of FitNut Consulting, says most people, like Cook, buy packaged foods to fit in with their busy schedules. “People are looking for convenient options,” she says.

But Kennedy says people can still make healthier choices when choosing to use time-saving products by evaluating three areas on food packaging.

Nutrition Facts table

The first area that shoppers should zone in on, Kennedy says, is the Nutrition Facts table

Kennedy says she encourages clients to take note of two key areas on a product’s Nutrition Facts table. The first area is the given serving size. She says, “You want to make sure the serving size is proportionate to what you are actually consuming. A serving size might be very different just so they can get away with a claim.”

She also suggests that consumers evaluate the daily value percentages column. She explains: “In the case of a really healthy nutrient like calcium, iron or fibre, you actually want to have something that is greater than 15 per cent per serving. In the case of sodium, trans fats and saturated fats, you want to have less than 15 per cent.” 

What is a serving size? 

Canada’s Food Guide suggests the following examples of serving sizes for optimal nutrition.

• Fruits and Vegetables (7-10 per day)

½ cup (125 ml) of fresh, canned, or frozen fruits or vegetables

1 cup (250 ml) of salad or leafy vegetable

1 piece of fruit

• Grains (6-8 per day)

1 (35 g) slice of bread

½ cup (125 ml) of cooked pasta, rice, or couscous

30 g of cold cereal

• Milk and Alternatives (2 per day)

1 cup (250 ml) of milk or soy beverage

¾ cup (175 g) of yogurt

50 g of cheese

• Meat and Alternatives (2-3 per day)

½ cup (75 g) of cooked fish, shellfish, poultry or lean meat

¾ cup (175 ml) of cooked beans

2 Tbsp (30 ml) of peanut butter

HealthyCanadians.gc.ca says the body requires sodium, which is found in salt, in order to function properly. But too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, and heart and kidney disease, says the government website.

Kennedy says, “If you can choose a packaged item that has less than 15 per cent sodium, you’re doing very well.”

Ingredients list 

After evaluating the Nutrition Facts table, potential consumers should give the ingredients list a look, says Kennedy. She advises against using products that have words like “hydrogenated” and “bleached” in their ingredient lists. Those words are a key indicator that the product has undergone more processing and thus diminishing the nutritional value, she explains.

The word “hydrogenated” refers to a process that creates trans fats.
HealthyCanadians.gc.ca says scientific research indicated that trans fats can increase the risk of developing heart disease as well as raise cholesterol and therefore it’s best to avoid these products.

Cook says he is concerned about the lack of nutritional value in packaged foods.

Photo by: Devon Jolie

Beware of claims

Many products now have health claims slapped on their labels. But Kennedy cautions against relying solely on the promise of something being low in fat or a healthy
alternative. She recommends that consumers still check the Nutrition Facts tables and ingredient lists to make the most informed and healthy choices.

She says: “Most grocery stores have their own health-rating system and it’s not necessarily following any guidelines. So you have to be careful, don’t just pick something because it has a green check on it.”

What it ultimately comes down to is making an informed and conscience decision. “You have to be cautious and you have to be able to interpret the data,” she says. 

But when possible, Kennedy recommends eliminating packaged foods and becoming educated about whole foods by taking a cooking class or seeking nutritional help. She says, “If you can opt out of packaged convenience items more often, you’re going to make a healthier choice, no matter what.”

djolie@cjournal.ca